Invisible victories – Part 1 of 5

From The Oregonian, October 03, 2004

Invisible victories is part 1 of 5 UNNECESSARY EPIDEMIC: A Five-Part Series by The Oregonian – 2004 / 2005 SEE – All five stories here.

This series of articles, written largely by Steve Suo, illuminated and encouraged Oregon’s legal strategy toward addiction which uses institutional punishment approach versus a medical approach which might offer an individual’s recovery as a primary goal. As of Spring of 2011, Oregon’s strategy has had no affect on the number of arrests or convictions for drug possession or distribution, and has resulted in thousands of deaths, and billions of misspent tax dollars.

The siren of meth fuels crime and ravages communities across the West, but an analysis by The Oregonian shows sustained pressure by government could stop the . . .
Unnecessary epidemic

A decade ago, federal authorities choked off the supply of chemicals needed to make methamphetamine, a cheap, potent stimulant that was devastating the West.

The drug grew scarce, and rehab centers saw fewer meth patients. Emergency rooms reported fewer meth overdoses. Fewer people were arrested for possessing the drug. Identity theft and car theft — crimes typically committed by meth addicts — fell in several Western cities.

Federal agents had vastly improved the quality of life, but they didn’t know it.

Within a year, the drug cartels that make most of the nation’s methamphetamine found new ways to obtain their ingredients, taking advantage of a loophole left open by Congress. As a result, meth use rebounded, and the epidemic spread eastward. Today, an estimated 1.3 million Americans smoke, snort or inject the drug.

An investigation by The Oregonian shows that Congress and federal authorities could have contained the methamphetamine epidemic, and still can.

The investigation establishes for the first time that methamphetamine traffickers are uniquely vulnerable to government pressure.

Methamphetamine differs from heroin and cocaine, which are distilled from plants grown across vast stretches of South America and Asia. Drug dealers create meth from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, chemicals used to make cough and cold remedies such as Sudafed. Only nine factories manufacture the bulk of the world’s supply.

Deprive traffickers of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and the meth trade withers.

Peter Reuter, a leading drug expert and longtime skeptic of the government’s ability to disrupt the drug trade, said The Oregonian‘s findings were startling. Reuter called them the first convincing evidence that government and law enforcement agencies could substantially reduce meth addiction.

The research, he said, shows that tightening control over the supply of meth chemicals would make “a significant difference to the criminal interests” while modestly inconveniencing consumers.

“I have been asked in the course of the presidential campaign, ‘Why doesn’t anyone talk about drugs?’ ” said Reuter, a University of Maryland professor who served on the Clinton administration’s meth task force.

The answer, Reuter said, is that no candidate has a plausible approach.

“Here, you actually do have a better idea.”

The Oregonian found striking correlations between government actions and meth abuse. In two periods — 1995-96 and 1998-99 — federal authorities interrupted the flow of chemicals to drug cartels. Each time, crime and addiction fell in tandem as the price of the drug rose.

The Oregonian discovered these previously overlooked successes by examining millions of reports on arrests, emergency room admissions, drug treatment, and the price and potency of meth seized by drug agents.

Until now, federal officials were unaware of the extent to which their policies succeeded.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began calling for much tighter control over ephedrine and pseudoephedrine nearly two decades ago.

But lawmakers were reluctant to interfere with the legitimate trade and said the DEA had no proof the approach would work. The pharmaceutical industry lobbied its allies on Capitol Hill and in the White House to delay or soften legislation that would have harmed the $3 billion market in popular cold products.

When Congress finally gave the DEA broad authority over the trade in pseudoephedrine in 1996, the agency did not take full advantage of the powers it had sought.

The agency allowed companies it licensed to continue selling cold medicine, even after 20, 30, 40 written warnings that their products were found in meth labs.

The DEA said it has tightened its registration program since 2000, when a number of officially approved dealers were charged with supplying pseudoephedrine to meth traffickers. In a written statement, the agency said it had “always considered” the control of meth chemicals a “high priority.”

Meth abuse is particularly widespread in Oregon, which treats more people for meth addiction per capita than any other state in the country.

The drug, sold in powder or rock form, delivers an intense rush. A few hits cost just $25. Heavy users stay awake for days, growing paranoid and aggressive before crashing into sleep.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski now calls meth the most pressing crime issue facing the state. Police in Portland and surrounding suburbs say that meth users are responsible for thousands of identity thefts each year.

In rural communities such as Coos County on the Oregon coast, social workers say meth abuse plays a role in most cases of child abuse and neglect.

The story is repeated in communities across much of the country. More people are now in rehab for meth addiction than for cocaine or heroin in 16 states. And recent treatment data show the drug is rapidly drawing new users in places such as Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia.

The problem has been slow to reach the attention of national policymakers, in part because the threat remains distant from the nation’s major East Coast cities.

Authorities in Portland, Spokane, San Diego and Phoenix report that 25 percent to 38 percent of men arrested for any crime have methamphetamine in their bloodstream. The comparable rates in New York and Washington, D.C., are less than 1 percent.

Nancy Bukar, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, argues that the regional nature of the problem weighs against further restrictions on pseudoephedrine products.

“You’ve got to strike a balance here,” said Bukar, whose group represents pharmaceutical companies. “Yes, they’re being used in an illegitimate fashion by some people, but the major majority of people are using it for colds and to unstuff noses.”

Over the past decade, meth traffickers have displayed an uncanny ability to outwit regulators and obtain their raw materials. But former DEA officials say the government has failed to make a concerted effort to deprive traffickers of two chemicals produced in only four countries.

The Oregonian’s study shows that a national strategy to halt the flow of meth chemicals could be accomplished with little effect on consumers and relatively low cost to taxpayers.

U.S. diplomats could work with officials in India, China, the Czech Republic and Germany to more closely track every sale of pseudoephedrine from the few factories that produce it. Right now, DEA officials review only exports from those countries to the United States and Mexico.

U.S. diplomats could work with officials in India, China, the Czech Republic and Germany to more closely track every sale of pseudoephedrine from the few factories that produce it. Right now, DEA officials review only exports from those countries to the United States and Mexico.

That approach failed to immediately detect a huge smuggling route through Canada that opened in the late 1990s.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse, which spends $1 billion a year on addiction research, could dedicate some money to developing an effective decongestant that cannot be converted into meth.

Pfizer, one of the leading sellers of cold medicine in the United States, holds the patent to such a medicine. It has never been brought to market, Pfizer says, because it was not enough of an improvement as a cold medicine to make it commercially viable.

The government could provide incentives for drug companies to create such a product, just as it already subsidizes research on unprofitable “orphan drugs” that promise cures for rare diseases.

Finally, the DEA could take a more aggressive approach to overseeing the trade in the two key chemicals used to make meth. The agency spends $700 million annually eradicating coca plants in South America. It devotes only $20 million to tracking the flow of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine — the same amount the city of Portland spends annually on its motor pool.

John Coleman, DEA’s former chief of operations, said the agency “could do a lot of phenomenal things” if it put more money into regulating drug chemicals.

“We’re keeping the accomplishments low by keeping the staffing low,” said Coleman, who also served as head of the DEA’s offices in Boston and Newark, N.J.

“It’s not very hard, really,” he said. “It’s just like shooting fish in a barrel. But you have to have the bodies.”

Trend across states

The Oregonian set out to understand what caused the explosive growth in meth abuse during the 1990s.

First, the newspaper analyzed the records of 282,000 people entering rehabilitation programs for methamphetamine abuse in Oregon, Washington and California from 1992 to 2000. Their names were obscured to protect their privacy.

Researchers who study drug abuse have used treatment statistics as a barometer of the number of addicts. Just as population growth can be seen in clogged freeways, a rise in patients reporting to rehab centers is a sign that the drug problem is worsening.

The rise and fall of patients in rehab is an imperfect measure that could also reflect changes in availability of treatment and other factors. For this reason, The Oregonian examined treatment data from multiple states in combination with statistics on crime, emergency room admissions and arrests.

During the 1990s, the number of patients in Oregon, Washington and California admitted for meth abuse soared. But during the two periods in which federal authorities restricted access to the chemicals needed to make meth — 1995-96 and 1998-99 — clinics saw their meth caseloads sharply decline.

In those years, the numbers of patients diminished in Oregon, Washington and California, three states with different approaches to rehabilitation. That pattern was seen among people who voluntarily entered treatment and those ordered to do so by courts and child welfare agencies.

The Oregonian compared these treatment statistics with the number of trauma and overdose patients admitted to emergency rooms with meth in their blood. The patterns were identical.

The newspaper next examined arrests for methamphetamine possession in the same period. No statewide data were available for Oregon and Washington, but in California the numbers rose steadily except in 1995-96 and 1998-99.

Finally, the analysis turned to data on two crimes most commonly associated with meth users in Oregon: forgery and fraud. Data statewide, as well as for Portland and Salem, once again showed improvements in 1995-96 and 1998-99.

Police in Spokane; Salem; Sacramento; Kennewick, Wash.; and Phoenix reported the number of vehicles stolen monthly dipped or leveled off in 1995-96 and again in 1998-99 — the same periods when other indicators of meth use were falling. Annual FBI data showed similar declines in rural counties of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington.

The similarity among these multiple measures of meth abuse was striking. The numbers of meth rehab patients, overdoses, arrests and property crimes moved in unison, matching one another in many cases across states down to the month.

Taken together, the data The Oregonian examined show there was good news hidden within the deluge of meth-related crime stories of the past decade.

But what caused such simultaneous, dramatic changes in the drug habits of individuals living thousands of miles apart?

The answer lay in the supply of the drug itself — an aspect of the meth trade that turned out to be highly susceptible to government intervention.

Myths of meth

The most common belief about meth is that its use has grown rapidly because anyone can make it. Television news features colorful scenes of houses ablaze after volatile meth chemicals used by home cookers ignite.

The reality: Despite the existence of thousands of such home labs across the country, federal drug agents say local users make very little of the meth consumed in the United States.

From Oregon to Iowa, the DEA estimates that four out of every five hits of meth are cooked by Mexican organized crime syndicates operating in California, where they began making the drug on a grand scale a decade ago.

Their ability to produce plentiful, highly pure meth propelled the drug’s popularity.

In the 1970s, meth was a minor West Coast fad. California motorcycle gangs discovered the powerful stimulant first synthesized by a Japanese chemist in 1919.

In 1980, the bikers’ main ingredient, phenyl-2-propanone, came under federal control. So, underground cooks turned to ephedrine, a mild stimulant whose main legal use was as an asthma medication. To their surprise, ephedrine made meth twice as potent.

Prosecutors say a small-time Mexican cocaine runner named Jesus Amezcua Contreras and his brother, Luis, saw the commercial possibilities.

“This was not some Laurel and Hardy, dumb bunch of bikers that made meth in their back yards,” said Larry Cho, a federal prosecutor who obtained a 1994 indictment against Luis Amezcua in Orange County, Calif. “Those guys were starting to industrialize the methamphetamine process. They made it into a business.”

The key to their success, DEA officials say, was a massive and steady supply of ephedrine.

By 1989, the U.S. government had regulated sales of ephedrine powder, but the law exempted sellers of ephedrine pills — because the product was a legitimate asthma medication.

Some meth cooks began to tap a gray market that hawked these products in adult magazines as “energy boosters.”

But the Amezcua brothers went to the source, prosecutors say, arranging directly or through middlemen to purchase bulk ephedrine powder from manufacturers in Germany, the Czech Republic, India and China. A federal indictment says the Amezcuas and their scouts roamed Europe and Asia, placing orders by the ton.

By 1992, the brothers were shipping unprecedented quantities of ephedrine into Mexico and on through Tijuana to Southern and Central California, according to court documents. There, the Amezcuas and other cartels that followed found plenty of migrant labor and mile after mile of open space in which to hide a revolutionary process for making meth.

Drug agents from San Diego to Sacramento began discovering labs that cooked meth in a flask the size of a beach ball, big enough to hold 11 two-liter bottles of soda. As many as 12 of these giant globes were strung together, for a capacity of 144 pounds of pure meth every 48 hours.

Cut to street purity, that amount of meth would equal 1 million doses — enough to keep tens of thousands of heavy users high for days. By contrast, home-based labs produce about one ounce of meth at a time, enough for 280 doses.

Seemingly overnight, cookie-cutter copies of the mammoth labs were everywhere. The operators were migrant workers, paid and trained by mysterious benefactors to keep the labs running and their mouths shut.

The product entered existing Mexican distribution channels for heroin and cocaine that stretched as far as North Carolina.

As meth became more abundant, dealers had less need to dilute it. The drug’s purity rose.

Purer drugs are more habit-forming, studies have shown. Primates and rats, trained to press a lever that releases a shot of drugs, learn the trick faster when the initial dosage is strong.

Purer drugs also reduce the cost of getting high. A $25 bag of meth lasts longer. Numerous studies in both humans and animals show that when the “cost” goes down, users get high more often — just as motorists choose to drive more when gasoline is cheap.

That is what happened with meth from 1991 to 1994.

The average purity of meth doubled nationally in those years, reaching more than 70 percent, according to a RAND Corp. analysis of DEA data.

The highly potent meth hit the street simultaneously in nearly every Western state, The Oregonian’s analysis shows. Soon after, the numbers of people entering rehab for methamphetamine addiction, arrested for meth possession and suffering overdoses began to rise.

Drug cartels had created a national habit by making meth plentiful and pure. But the secret to their success — the ephedrine pipeline — was about to be exposed.

The perfect storm

One day in March 1994, a shipping agent in Frankfurt, Germany, made a mundane but fateful decision that would bring chaos to the market that the Amezcua brothers had built.

A customer with a shipment of 120 cardboard barrels bound for Mexico City had left explicit instructions to steer the load clear of U.S. ports. But the flight to Mexico City was overbooked and beyond its allowable cargo weight. Contrary to the shipper’s wishes, the agent sent the load on a Lufthansa flight that landed in Dallas.

There, the shipment immediately raised suspicions. U.S. Customs agents on the tarmac noticed that the labels had been altered. They pried open the barrel lids and found 3.4 metric tons of pure ephedrine powder, enough to cook up more than 41 million doses of methamphetamine.

It was a lucky break. For the first time, federal investigators had evidence they could use to trace precisely who was supplying ephedrine to the Amezcuas.

Four months after the first multi-ton seizure, customs agents in Dallas seized another 2.4 tons of ephedrine. In October, Dutch authorities at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport stopped a 6.9-ton shipment of ephedrine that was bound for Guadalajara.

Terry Woodworth
, who recently retired as the DEA’s deputy director of diversion control, called the string of discoveries “an eye-opener.”

“We were, to be candid, not as aware of that situation as we should have been until the Dallas-Fort Worth seizures,” Woodworth said.

DEA officials flew to a meeting of the International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna to confront their counterparts from the countries that had unwittingly helped the Amezcuas obtain their ephedrine. Within months, the manufacturing countries and nations that were stopover points enacted stringent export restrictions.

In the United States, meanwhile, Congress had moved to choke off access to ephedrine pills, which had been protected from regulation and were being found by the millions in meth labs. A new law, requiring sellers of ephedrine pills to register with the government, was scheduled to take full effect in 1995. Many shady operators were scared away.

As a final blow, an IRS investigation led to a mail-order pill maker suspected of providing tons of ephedrine to the meth market in pill form. DEA agents shut down the Pennsylvania company in May 1995.

DEA officials say that in just 18 months, they and their foreign counterparts blocked or seized an estimated 170 to 200 tons of ephedrine. It was a sixth of the world’s entire annual production.

“The hose was clamped,” said Gene Haislip, former head of the DEA office that tracks chemical sales.

In California, the Amezcuas and other Mexican meth cartels felt the effects.

According to a DEA report written at the time, the standard, 55-pound drums of foreign ephedrine the traffickers called “tins” were going for as much as $80,000, nearly double the old price. Eventually, the traffickers stopped buying tins altogether, aware that the only people with any to offer were undercover police.

Short on ephedrine, traffickers produced less meth, prompting dealers to dilute or “step on” the product. In late 1995, according to a California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement internal bulletin, meth samples for the first time were found mixed with MSM, a veterinary analgesic that looks just like crystal meth.

Retail purity plummeted. Nationally, samples of the drug bought undercover fell to only 40 percent to 50 percent pure after peaking at 70 percent to 74 percent.

It was much the same in all the communities where the drug cartels had extended their distribution network. From Oregon to Missouri, meth seized by drug agents tested weaker and weaker.

In August 1995, a final sign of desperation emerged. Investigators in California’s Central Valley seized a lab that made simple amphetamine, a much weaker stimulant that can be made without ephedrine. For months afterward, what was sold as meth was actually the less potent drug, according to law enforcement officials.

Relief came to communities meth had ravaged.

In 1996, for the first time in four years, the number of people in rehab for meth fell in 16 of the 24 states west of the Mississippi River; in five others, the growth in rehab patients dramatically slowed. Each had experienced double-digit annual growth in meth patients from 1992 through 1995. Now, the number was down: 18 percent in Oregon, 19 percent in California, 22 percent in Washington.

Numerous other indicators of meth abuse were falling: meth-related trauma and overdoses nationally; arrests for meth possession in California; car thefts in Salem and Spokane; forgeries in Phoenix and Portland.

The declining purity of meth had suddenly raised the cost of getting high and reduced the drug’s addictive allure.

Multiple gauges indicated that meth users responded by cutting back, while some first-time users decided not to make meth a habit.

To people who believe drug addicts will achieve intoxication at any price, the findings would seem surprising. But to the numerous researchers who have found that users are sensitive to changes in price and purity, the outcome is perfectly logical.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said William Woolverton, a leading addiction researcher on primates at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “If you reduce the dose of methamphetamine, you weaken methamphetamine-taking behavior.”

In November 1995, the Amezcua brothers gathered with their underlings in Tijuana. According to a federal indictment, the Amezcua brothers discussed their plight. The disruption in their supply was forcing them to tap new sources. They were feeling the pressure.

Costly hesitations

The perfect storm that rocked the Amezcua empire represented a rare opportunity in the battle against meth.

It barely made a ripple with Congress.

DEA officials moved to control pseudoephedrine, ephedrine’s chemical sibling and the ingredient they assumed the cartels would try next. But pressed by the pharmaceutical industry, lawmakers resisted.

Meth purity rose again as the Amezcuas made the switch.

In 1996, Congress required pseudoephedrine sellers to register with the DEA, a major change. The law took effect the next year, chasing off some distributors who had supplied the meth trade. Meth purity began to fall, and with it addiction and crime.

Once again, the victory proved short-lived.

The DEA made limited use of its new powers, and the drug cartels slowly found other ways to obtain their chemicals.

In 1998, some pseudoephedrine wholesalers with DEA permits started selling millions of pills to meth traffickers. By 1999, purity was on the rise again.

In 2000, the DEA cracked down, sending dozens of black-market wholesalers to prison. By then, other pseudoephedrine brokers had found a new unregulated source: Canada, where the government had left open the same loopholes Congress had shut four years earlier.

Canada’s imports of pseudoephedrine jumped from 34 metric tons annually to about 140 tons in 2001. DEA officials say that additional amount was smuggled into the United States and driven to meth labs in California.

The DEA says Canadian pseudoephedrine imports have declined since. And last month, agents announced a successful operation against a new threat, Canadian distributors of ephedrine powder.

“Breaking up these organizations will dramatically limit the availability of ephedrine in the United States and will have a significant effect on the large-scale production of methamphetamine,” Deputy Administrator Michele Leonhart said in a statement.

But the most recent statistics on meth use show the number of addicts is rising, along with drug purity, suggesting that traffickers have found other overseas sources of supply.

Only one independent researcher has closely studied the issue.

In an article published last year in the journal Addiction, James Cunningham analyzed emergency room admissions in Nevada, California and Arizona. That study, based on a narrower range of data than The Oregonian’s, reached the same conclusion: Controlling chemicals reduces meth abuse.

Cunningham, of the Public Statistics Institute in Irvine, Calif., said researchers are reluctant to acknowledge the value of law enforcement in curbing drug abuse. “A lot of people have turned this into an emotional issue or a political issue,” he said. “We try to look at it as a health issue.”

Former DEA officials who worked to squeeze the chemical supply said they have long understood the basic principle.

“If you don’t have all the ingredients to make the pie,” said John Buckley, a retired DEA diversion investigator, “the pie isn’t going to come out right.”